The method by which I arrive at a deep love for certain albums is interesting to me. Often it requires time and a slow uncovering of brilliance lurking beneath the surface, merely hinted at by a hook or intriguing song here or there. Less frequently, the unadulterated genius of something bursts through upon first listen and the tide of it never recedes. And then there are records which are instantly appealing, but suddenly deliver a breakthrough moment after a few listens where they ascend to an entirely new level. So it was with this compilation from Henry Blacker.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must note that this release is not entirely new. The CD edition combines seven tracks from “Summer Tombs” (2015) and eight tracks from “Hungry Dogs Will Eat Dirty Puddings” (2014). But since there is genuinely new material here and the compilation is newly released, it qualifies. Plus it’s simply too goddamned good to not be considered. So there.
Now when I first heard this album online, I freaked out because it sounded like classic Queens of the Stone Age, but dirtier and rougher around the edges. And that’s essentially what it is, but that’s also a grand oversimplification. Like all albums that remind you of another artist but prove their originality, it’s only a matter of time before you almost entirely stop hearing that other artist.
I guess it’s fair to call Henry Blacker “stoner rock.” Certainly there is a thick crust of fantastic fuzz around the guitars, but the fiery urgency of several of these songs lean toward more of a punk aesthetic. Take the bouncing, furious “Landlubber,” which clubs and smashes its way forward with furious punk riffs; or “Shit Magus,” which has all the rhythmic subtlety of an AK-47. But then you have “Million Acre Fire,” “The Grain,” and “A Plague,” which gravitate toward a middle tempo while piling on the fat, shuddering riffs. Either way, there is not a single track here which doesn’t rock my ass senseless. And while that counts for a lot, a number one album it does not make. The real ace in the hole of “Summer Tombs” is the supremely amazing vocal delivery of Mr. Tim Farthing.
When “Cold Laking” opens the record (with a damned fine QOTSA-sounding riff, I must say), Farthing’s vocals are low and sort of weirdly loungey. And yes, they do resemble Josh Homme of QOTSA to a certain extent. But as the track pounds toward the finishing line, Farthing becomes a man possessed, suddenly bursting into a ragged, acid-flecked howl. There also seems to be some kind of vocal effect at work here (and if there isn’t, the result is doubly freaky) that layers on the demonic possession character—guttural and vicious and seriously unhinged. And it is magnificent.
As “Million Acre Fire” slams to a close, it sounds like a chorus of demons cursing. When Farthing seethes “Daaaamn…you got a shit magus!” in— you guessed it—“Shit Magus,” it sounds like he’s foaming at the fucking mouth. But nothing compares to the title track, a singularly monumental song that is my favorite of the entire bunch. “Summer Tombs” is about a man finding out he has cancer. “That’s how it starts,” he deadpans, “in the small of the back. First an ache, then a lingering burn.” The song is immensely heavy, a grinding, churning mass that conveys the weight of the subject matter. And when it gets to the devastating pre-chorus— “What will we tell the kids? I haven’t the strength for this.”—that demon-taunting-the-exorcist voice comes roaring out in full force, the thick sludge of it coating the walls of your ears and slowly dripping down. That vocal so conveys the grim desperation and helplessness of the situation, that it is as crushing as the massive guitar riffs around it. “Summer tombs, I thought we had more time,” goes the chorus, the stunning realization being vividly brought forward to the listener in a personal way most music just cannot deliver. And on a higher level, there is something about this incredible song that sounds like summer. It somehow bridges the grimness of the hottest summer days with the grimness of terminal disease. Maybe the suffocating riffs simulate the suffocating humidity of summer in some places (now I’m the one being personal); maybe the members of Henry Blacker are total songwriting geniuses; or maybe it was all a perfect accident—but this song is simply sublime.
As for the “Hungry Dogs” portion, every track is a winner for one reason or another, but several deserve special mention. “Your Birthday Has Come & Gone” is a brilliant portrayal of a dementia or Alzheimer’s victim, or maybe just someone trapped in mental lethargy by drugs purported to help. It’s monstrously heavy, the buzzing, vibrating riffs threatening to dive to subsonic levels. “My Majesty” rocks like a total beast and features my favorite vocal line of all: “The wrecks in my wake, are not my concern, nor the ones that I break, against the mighty jut of MY PROW!!!” The line’s potency is all but lost here in text, but hearing it will make you clench your fists as a gleam of mania creeps into your eyes. “Scumblood” actually didn’t grab me at first, and then one day I realized just how genuinely great it is. Another high-intensity song fueled by a punk vibe, it burns hot and fast in less than three minutes, but tears apart everything around it. “Pearlie” highlights the demonically possessed vocal again, this time to the greatest extent yet by apparently slowing it down several notches as if playing vinyl on the wrong speed. This song is both amusing and disturbing, a gigantic orb of sludge coating the sonic landscape as it lurches forward. And finally there is the brilliant “Temple Controls,” with hilarious lyrics about getting older, while the fuzz-drenched riffs burn holes through your speakers and leave them in ashes.
On the surface, “Summer Tombs/Hungry Dogs” seems like a curious choice for the top album of the year, but it is a wealth of rock ‘n’ roll greatness that delivers more than you ever think it will. It took a while to click with me, but once it did I gleefully spun it countless times. When I looked back over the year’s releases, it didn’t take much to realize that it was standing there above all others, screaming at me with the lungs of Beelzebub himself, and I was all too happy to oblige.
Embrace the brilliant madness here: https://riotseasonrecords.bandcamp.com/album/summer-tombs